KINDERHOOK, N.Y. — “Truth Be Told” is art and cannot be regulated under the Village of Kinderhook’s zoning code, according to a ruling by the Zoning Board of Appeals.
The ZBA unanimously approved a resolution Tuesday night, stating that Nick Cave’s controversial artwork, “Truth Be Told,” as exhibited on the side of The School, a cultural facility acting as an art gallery and owned by New York City gallerist Jack Shainman, was “displayed as a political message and art for a temporary period of time and therefore Kinderhook Village Code does not apply to regulate the exhibit as a sign.”
The resolution further states that because “Kinderhook Village Code does not currently regulate the use of a cultural facility or its accessory uses occurring within a residential district,” the ZBA recommends that the Village Board work with Shainman to “determine what can be done to allow the school to operate without undue conflict with the village’s residents and government.”
Board members were asked to rule on whether Cave’s work was a sign, and subject to local code, which limits and sometimes prohibits banners, billboards and signs. “Truth Be Told” was installed Oct. 31 and came down Sunday, as originally intended.
“Truth Be Told,” spelled out in 21-foot-high black graphic film letters that stretched 160 feet across the brick façade of The School, was created by Cave and design partner Bob Faust as “a pointed antidote to a presidency known for propaganda that disguises truth and history to present racist and nativist ideology as patriotism” with the intention of “sparking conversations of personal interpretations of truth and integrity.”
The ZBA first heard Shainman’s application at its December meeting and held a public hearing Jan. 25 via Zoom. The meeting, which had over 190 people participate, lasted three hours and included testimony from artists, community members and museum officials attesting to its authenticity as a work of art.
Board members also received petitions, letters and emails in regard to the work. Tuesday’s meeting was the continuation of the board’s January meeting. Over 50 people attended via Zoom conference.
Although the resolution passed unanimously in favor of Shainman and his cultural facility, not all board members agreed that Shainman should not be reprimanded for putting up the work of art. Code Enforcement Officer Peter Bujanow issued a letter of denial in regard to the artwork’s installation and later issued a stop-work order, on Oct. 21, calling for its removal after Shainman decided to put it up.
Board member Kim Gray, who said she voted in favor of the resolution because of the ZBA’s limited scope based on the letter of appeal, said she believed that the board should take a broader look and determine whether Shainman was in violation of his original special use permit, issued in 2012, allowing him to use the former elementary school as a cultural facility.
“I would say we cannot use the sign regulation to regulate this land-use activity. However, I can say there has been a violation of the special use permit which grants Mr. Shainman the approval to change the elementary school into a cultural facility. I believe if we cannot reach a compromise with Mr. Shainman, the remedy is to pull his special use permit ... that he stop operating as a cultural facility and be free to operate as an elementary school,” she said.
Several board members said “Truth Be Told” was, without a doubt, an artwork and, because of that, the Kinderhook Village Code did not provide any guidance.
Board member David Sullivan said the problem wasn’t whether “Truth Be Told” is artwork, but what is or is not permissible in regard to the code.
“Let’s define this, so we don’t find ourselves back here in a few months,” he said, suggesting that village officials review and perhaps amend the codes.
Chairman Jerome Callahan concurred, saying the Village Code contained 99 references to signs, but not a single reference to art. He also said he believed that the political intent of the artwork made it protected speech and, therefore, could not be regulated.
Gray also said she did not believe that art museums regularly host outdoor art exhibits, contrary to Shainman’s claims that outdoor works were covered by his special use permit. She noted that The School had sought variances for other artworks on the lawn and on the outside of the building, including an LED work displayed on the façade of The School in 2018. She said this was a matter of Shainman trying to expand his special use permit without going through the proper channels.
Two sculptures on the lawn of the school, she said, were different than “Truth Be Told,” as they were meant to attract attention to the gallery. Cave’s work, she said, included a placard explaining the work and that that made it an “art exhibit.”
“I believe in the value of art. I believe it enhances our lives. I believe we should expose ourselves to artwork and expose ourselves to the ideas these artists want us to consider to expand our minds,” Gray said. “People should be able to seek out art in its place, in its time at their own choosing. I don’t believe art should be foisted upon people when they are not seeking to experience the art.
“I don’t believe we should allow an outdoor art exhibit. I don’t believe we should allow an outdoor art gallery, which is what would be necessitated to permit this,” she said.
Denise Markonish, senior curator and director of exhibitions at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, previously told The Eagle that visitors to North Adams can expect to see a version of “Truth Be Told” on the museum’s billboards at the intersection of Marshall, Houghton and River streets in mid- to late February.
The Brooklyn Museum, in a recent New York Times article, announced that it will install “Truth Be Told” on an outdoor plaza near its entrance, in conjunction with an exhibition beginning May 14.